Revolutionary wisdom: A primer

INTRO: In 1993, an American political scientist named Gene Sharp wrote an 88-page guide to nonviolent revolution, “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation.” Now translated into more than 30 languages (by Sharp’s count), and available for download at his website, the plainspoken book found its way from Burma Myanmar to the Balkans and beyond.

A retired U.S. Army colonel, who encountered the text while a fellow at Harvard University, introduced it to activists in Serbia, some of whom went on to spark the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In 2009, as Iranians took to the streets to protest the outcome of elections there, thousands of copies were downloaded in Farsi from Sharp’s website. And last week, Sharp’s writings have been credited as source material for the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. In a preface, 10 sober chapters and three appendices, Sharp, who is now 83, defends the effectiveness of nonviolent action, pinpoints the weaknesses of oppressive regimes and urges would-be revolutionaries to plan ahead.

“The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia,” he writes. “Rather it opens the way for hard work and long efforts to build more just social, economic and political relationships.”

The following excerpts come from the book’s final chapter, “Groundwork for Durable Democracy”:


The disintegration of the dictatorship is of course a cause for major celebration. People who have suffered for so long and struggled at great price merit a time of joy, relaxation and recognition. They should feel proud of themselves and of all who struggled with them to win political freedom. Not all will have lived to see this day. The living and the dead will be remembered as heroes who helped to shape the history of freedom in their country.

Unfortunately, this is not a time for a reduction in vigilance. Even in the event of a successful disintegration of the dictatorship by political defiance, careful precautions must be taken to prevent the rise of a new oppressive regime out of the confusion following the collapse of the old one. The leaders of the pro-democracy forces should have prepared in advance for an orderly transition to a democracy. The dictatorial structures will need to be dismantled. The constitutional and legal bases and standards of behavior of a durable democracy will need to be built.

No one should believe that with the downfall of the dictatorship an ideal society will immediately appear. The disintegration of the dictatorship simply provides the beginning point, under conditions of enhanced freedom, for long-term efforts to improve the society and meet human needs more adequately. Serious political, economic and social problems will continue for years, requiring the cooperation of many people and groups in seeking their resolution. The new political system should provide the opportunities for people with varying outlooks and favored measures to continue constructive work and policy development to deal with problems in the future.


The new democratic system will require a constitution that establishes the desired framework of the democratic government. The constitution should set the purposes of government, limits on governmental powers, the means and timing of elections by which governmental officials and legislators will be chosen, the inherent rights of the people and the relation of the national government to other lower levels of government. Within the central government, if it is to remain democratic, a clear division of authority should be established between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Strong restrictions should be included on activities of the police, intelligence services and military forces to prohibit any legal political interference.

Preparing a new constitution will take considerable time and thought. Popular participation in this process is desirable and required for ratification of a new text or amendments. One should be very cautious about including in the constitution promises that later might prove impossible to implement or provisions that would require a highly centralized government, for both can facilitate a new dictatorship. The wording of the constitution should be easily understood by the majority of the population. A constitution should not be so complex or ambiguous that only lawyers or other elites can claim to understand it.



In the interests of maintaining internal democracy, serious consideration should be given to applying the basic principles of political defiance to the needs of national defense. By placing resistance capacity directly in the hands of the citizenry, newly liberated countries could avoid the need to establish a strong military capacity which could itself threaten democracy or require vast economic resources much needed for other purposes.

It must be remembered that some groups will ignore any constitutional provision in their aim to establish themselves as new dictators. Therefore, a permanent role will exist for the population to apply political defiance and noncooperation against would-be dictators and to preserve democratic structures, rights and procedures.

If people can grasp what is required for their own liberation, they can chart courses of action which, through much travail, can eventually bring them their freedom. Then, with diligence they can construct a new democratic order and prepare for its defense. Freedom won by struggle of this type can be durable. It can be maintained by a tenacious people committed to its preservations and enrichment.


Compiled and researched by Andrew DeBlock.